Everyman’s Strategic Survey: Is Iran the next North Korea?

downloadThere is a thought provoking article in Foreign Affairs by Philip Gordon and Amos Yadlin, two seasoned observers, with, one suspects, considerable “insider” knowledge, that asks the troubling question: “Will Iran Become the Next North Korea?

Dr Gordon and Major General (retired) Yadlin begin their essay by reciting the litany of American strategic failures going back to the 1990s: ” In 1994,” they write, “the Bill Clinton administration announced an “Agreed Framework” that would “freeze and then dismantle” the North’s nuclear program, promising that “South Korea and our other allies will be better protected,” “the entire world will be safer,” and “the United States and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea to make sure it keeps its commitments.” But Pyongyang cheated, the deal collapsed, and, within a decade, North Korea was back on the path to the bomb … [next] … The George W. Bush administration tried a more confrontational approach, but it failed, too. Despite a new doctrine of preemption and pledges to prevent hostile actors such as North Korea from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Bush could do nothing but “condemn this provocative act” when Pyongyang tested a weapon in 2006. And despite pledges that North Korea would be held “fully accountable” if it proliferated nuclear weapons or materials, the administration stood by without acting as Pyongyang proceeded to build a secret, plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor in Syria.  According to senior U.S. intelligence officials, that effort was only stopped when Israel took matters in its own hands and bombed the site in 2007 … [then] … Seeking to avoid military confrontation, but also refusing to reward North Korea’s behavior with talks, the Barack Obama administration in 2009 turned to a policy of “strategic patience,” but then could only patiently watch as Pyongyang built up a significant nuclear arsenal and advanced its delivery systems … [and.most recently] … Next up was the Trump administration. When, in January 2017, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un signaled an intention to test a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, Trump famously boasted on Twitter that “It won’t happen!” and later announced that he was sending “an armada” to the region. Vice President Mike Pence reinforced Trump’s message by traveling to the Korean demilitarized zone and warning Pyongyang not to “test [Trump’s] resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States.” But test it they have, and all indications are that the U.S. response will be no more effective than it has been in confronting other North Korean advances over the past 20 years.

PX 96-33:12Now, Harold Macmillan, very famously and even more correctly, said that ““Jaw, jaw is better than war, war” (even though the quote is often misattributed to Churchill, who said something similar in 1954), but, sometimes, all the “jaw, jawing” ends up producing no desirable results (although one can, properly, argue that not going to war in Korea is a desirable result in itself, just as not letting the Cold War get too hot was, without a doubt, an achievement for US foreign policy from the 1940s until the 1990s.)

With this track record,” [the sad litany listed above] “leaders and publics across the Middle East could be forgiven,” the authors say, “for wondering whether American efforts to prevent an Iranian bomb will prove any more successful. But there are key differences between the two situations, and it is important to draw the right lessons from the North Korean experience. There is still time to prevent Iran from following in North Korea’s footsteps, but only if leaders in Washington and elsewhere are honest about the challenge and recognize not just what is familiar about it but what is different as well.

Philip Gordon and Amoz Yadlin suggest that while “Some would argue that because diplomacy failed in North Korea, the United States and its partners should eschew any attempt at negotiations and simply focus on economic and diplomatic isolation until the Iranian regime caves or collapses  that would be a mistake for a number of reasons. In the North Korean case, the Agreed Framework collapsed in part because the U.S. Congress, determined not to “appease” Pyongyang, refused to live up to commitments to provide the North with energy supplies, as stipulated by the deal. And the absence of a negotiated deal resulted in neither North Korean collapse nor compromise but rather a paranoid nuclear-weapons state with intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities—hardly an advertisement for that strategy. The right approach to Iran today is thus not to give up on negotiations, which would leave the disastrous alternatives of accepting an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran, but to make such negotiations work.

There is the first lesson: if you are going to negotiate in good faith you need to be able to do what you promised. But, as we Canadians know from e.g. endless softwood lumber disputes, the US Congress is never shy about breaking deals and treaties, even laws, that the US President signed. As the famous US politician “Tip” O’Neill explained, “all politics is local,” meaning that the day-to-day partisan political “needs” of elected people may, often will trump the signed, sealed and delivered agreements made in treaties. The simple fact is that US presidents have been emasculated by the congress and foreign leaders know it.

It would be naive to believe,” the authors say “that any Iranian government—even one no longer particularly hostile to Israel and the Sunni-majority states—would entirely abandon decades of work to develop a nuclear energy industry. But it would also be unwise not to test the proposition that the right combination of incentives and disincentives could lead different Iranian leaders to accept meaningful limits and effective monitoring of that industry. Pyongyang made a different choice and it is now one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world. Tehran, or more realistically, the Iranian people, might look at that precedent and decide that they prefer a different future … [but, they add] … Another key difference is that a military option to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb remains viable as a last resort. In North Korea, military preemption has long been precluded by the strategic reality that most of the South Korean population, including the capital city of Seoul, lies within range of thousands of North Korean rockets, and all of North Korea’s neighbors, including South Korea, oppose military action to prevent proliferation. A preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program would of course be costly and problematic as well, but given the costs and consequences of an Iranian nuclear capability, it remains a real option—one many of Iran’s neighbors would support.

BF-18 Flight 58 GBU-32 WDAIn other words, American led negotiations can work with Iran but Israel has the military capacity and the political will to launch a preemptive, possibly nuclear strike if it believes that its own survival is threatened. That situation does not obtain in North East Asia.

A final difference,” … [the authors explain] … “is that although North Korea has now become a nuclear-weapons state armed with long-range missiles, there is still time with Iran. Even those leaders in Washington and the Middle East who opposed the nuclear deal with Iran should acknowledge that it has, at least for now, stopped Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, and they should use that time wisely. Washington should accept the conclusions of the International Atomic Energy Agency and others that Iran is complying with the agreement and continue to provide the periodic extensions of sanctions waivers necessary to keep the agreement alive. A unilateral decision by the Trump administration to declare Iran in noncompliance, or to provoke an artificial crisis over inspections, as some in the administration are reportedly planning, would only serve to isolate the United States and give Iran a pretext to resume its nuclear activities.

They go on to explain that “The [Iranian] nuclear deal was designed to give Iran the opportunity over 10­ to 15 years to demonstrate that its nuclear energy program is exclusively peaceful. If at the time the restrictions are lifted, Iran remains a major state-sponsor of terrorism unwilling to live in peace with its neighbors and has failed to provide assurance that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon, the United States and its partners in the region and around the world will have to decide then how to deal with Iran—a discussion they would do well to initiate already today … [and] … North Korea has always had an ally, China, that is unwilling to punish its nuclear transgressions for fear of precipitating a regime collapse and losing a proxy. Iran has, and should have, no such protector. If it fails to use the time bought by the nuclear deal to reassure the world that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons,” the world’s major powers should agree that all options remain on the table, including a military option and a return to the sanctions that led Iran to negotiate in the first place.

In essence, America has one ace up its sleeve: Israel’s capacity to strike Iran. The key “leadership” required of a US administration is to “buy’ Israel the freedom to act ~ IF it is ever necessary.

The authors conclude that: “It would be naive to deny the troubling similarities between the cases of North Korea and Iran. But it would be equally wrong to ignore the differences. If the leaders of the United States and its Middle Eastern partners draw the right lessons from the North Korean experience, they have a chance to avoid repeating it.

Amen to that.


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